Tuesday, April 28, 2015

How Suffering Did NOT Bring Me Closer To God

Image source.

I recently saw this tweet, from @BibleStdntsSay:

This is TOTALLY A THING in American evangelical culture. People always talk about how suffering brings us closer to God. As if this is something that automatically happens when you're having a horrible time.

I've heard testimonies about how people have gone through illness, divorce, death of their family members, all kinds of horrible stuff, and how God was totally with them. I believe those testimonies- but they aren't the whole story. Let's also hear from the people who suffered and God was nowhere to be found.

I've heard this often trotted out as an "answer" to the question of why God allows evil to happen in the world. "Well," they say, "God brings good things out of suffering. It brings people closer to God."

I've heard people say that the reason impoverished countries have a higher proportion of religious people is that it's so much easier for people who are in need to feel God's presence and rely on God.

I've heard American Christians talk about Christians in other parts of the world who face persecution, and how it makes their faith so much stronger, and they, apparently, deeply feel God's presence and experience miraculous rescues and things. These stories always seem to be told with a bit of jealousy- oh, if only I were a persecuted Christian, I would have the opportunity to know God like that.

Overall, Christian culture taught me this: When you suffer, when horrible things happen to you, you cry out to God, and you experience God's love/peace/etc in a totally incredible way, which would never have been possible without the suffering. That's how it works.

Yeah. Right. So let me tell you about my gall bladder.

Back when I was working on my master's degree, I had big plans. I was going to get all my research done, write my thesis, graduate, and move to China, all within, say, the next six months. But then I got sick, suddenly. I felt nauseous every day. I couldn't go to class, because as soon as I got there, I would feel like I was going to throw up. I couldn't work on my research because, yep, felt like I was gonna throw up. I couldn't really do much of anything, and this lasted for weeks and I had no idea why.

I ended up going back to live with my parents. I literally could not do anything. Just laid on the couch every day, feeling sick because I hadn't eaten, feeling sick because I had eaten.

How could this happen? How could God let this happen? I was a totally healthy college student, I had plans, I had goals, and then suddenly my body just started being terrible and I couldn't do anything.

This was the proof that "We can trust God" is a lie. Because what on earth would "trust God" mean, if it didn't include "we can trust God not to let huge unexpected things come up and totally derail your entire life"?

I prayed a little, I guess. But there were no answers. My only thought was, maybe I'm dealing with the unreasonable, violent, bad-at-communicating God from 2 Samuel 21, and this is punishment for dating a guy without getting approval from God first.

And... I thought I was doing it wrong. People always say suffering brings us closer to God, but this totally didn't. Evidently, I was suffering incorrectly. Here was this big opportunity to experience God's love in a new and amazing way, and I had somehow screwed it up. Maybe I didn't pray enough.

And I mean, if you're preaching something that makes horribly sick people blame themselves for not having some kind of amazing spiritual experience, maybe stop preaching that.

After 2 months, I had surgery to get my gall bladder removed. I felt 1000 times better, but still often got nauseous. I worried that I wouldn't be able to get a job because the idea of having responsibilities and not being able to go lie down whenever I felt sick seemed impossible.

Then I got depression, because sitting at home feeling like everything in your life is failing will do that to a person.

Eventually I got better. I found a job, I'm living my dream in China now. But that whole gall bladder thing delayed my life by about a year. And now I can't eat fried rice or other stuff with too much fat, or it makes me feel nauseous.

How and why did this happen? No idea. No answers. My doctor doesn't know what caused it either.

Was God trying to teach me something? Was God trying to bring me closer to Godself? Heh. Yeah right. All I learned was that I can't trust God.


Comment policy: If you try to give me some kind of cliche answer about "God was teaching you something" or "God was sparing you from something worse" I will lol at you. You think I haven't all those before?

Basically if you don't believe me when I say it completely sucked, I'm not interested in what you have to say.


  1. That sucks. I'm sorry that happened to you. :( Your post reminded me of my experience being single throughout my 30's, and hearing all those sermons/reading all those Christian books about the "gift" of singleness. And just really wanting for someone to say to me, "It's ok to admit this out-and-out sucks. It just SUCKS! And your inability to see it as a "gift" or a "blessing" is not a mark of your maturity as a Christian. It's just a mark of how sucky the situation is!"

    So yes - 'amen' to this!:

    "And I mean, if you're preaching something that makes horribly sick people blame themselves for not having some kind of amazing spiritual experience, maybe stop preaching that."

  2. Yeah, that cheerful "God made this happen for the best" response to suffering really annoys me. I've had a rough year, and I don't have much patience for that sort of thing right now. Oddly enough, suffering HAS brought me closer to God in a way.

    A bunch of ways. I've received an incredible amount of support from my community (especially church community). I'm excited about church and Jesus and the cross and the resurrection in a way that I wasn't before. I've been forced to trust because there's really nothing else I can do. I've learned to be gentler with myself and others. I've connected more deeply with the suffering of those around me and with the stories of suffering in the Bible.

    And YET, there's no way I would choose this experience over an alternate version of my life where everything just turned out hunky dory. That would be awesome. This? This sucks. It really does. It sounds like your gall bladder issue did too. And that's where I'm at now, trying to figure out this crazy experience of being human, trying to figure out what suffering means, if anything. Good can come from it- God brings life out of death, after all- but it also really, truly sucks.

  3. Yeah, it sucked. We had an unemployment situation in our family that came from the recession and lasted four years-- and our lives STILL aren't fully back on track from that (and it looks like they may never be). But I think it's possible to still trust God, because I think "we can trust God not to let huge unexpected things come up and totally derail your entire life" isn't really part of the definition of trusting God, because God never promised that. Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble," and boy have we had trouble! What helped me most is Philip Yancey's book "Disappointment with God."

    What I have experienced is that feelings of being betrayed by God are a fairly normal part of the Christian life and that they usually come from false expectations (such as the ones you gave above, that suffering is ALWAYS going to draw us closer to God or that God NEVER puts more on us than we can bear-- or that God will never allow our lives to be totally derailed by some huge illness, financial loss, death or disaster). For me, what I think I can trust God for is that God will always love me and will bring me safe into His arms in the end. And once I decided to trust God again, I started feeling God's presence again too.

    I don't know if this will help or hinder you, but I offer it for what it's worth.

  4. I hear you. I was diagnosed 11 years ago with rheumatoid arthritis, and it's only been this past year that my doctors managed to find the right combination of (affordable) meds to keep me relatively pain-free. That was 10 years of occasionally-I'm-OK, occasionally-I'm-bedridden, most-of-the-time-I'm-in-pain-but-I-can-walk. And hearing people act like this was a gift, like I was privileged to get to be in pain all the time, was infuriating. Because it totally wasn't.

    That doesn't mean I wasn't able to get *something* good out of it. I developed a strong support system. I learned how to be very firm about my own physical boundaries. I had a LOT more empathy than I did in high school for people in chronic pain. I did a lot of self-searching (had lots of time when I couldn't do much else) and sometimes did grow closer to God as a result of that. But that was making the best of a bad situation. Now that I have an option to be pain-free, uh, I'm going for it, and I am more than delighted to have that part of my life gone.

  5. As Fred Clark often says, "That'll preach." Thanks for this.

  6. Yes. I'm so tired of people telling me that God is going to make something good come out of all this. As an earlier comment said, yeah, I've learned things - boundaries, empathy, and I've escaped from the crippling Christian patriarchy movement and the crazy ideas and abuse I grew up with. But I don't think the pain and depression and anxiety and being shunned by my family and losing so many people I care about is God trying to teach me something. I think it's a byproduct of what people stupidly believe or had already taught me about god, and people who do love god letting me down over and over again.

    Or questioning me if I've tried to hear from God, if I've asked God to show me. Yes, I've asked. Yes, more than once. No, he really hasn't shown up.

    My Mom actually tried to tell me God was bring hard times into my life to teach me something, to get my attention. Those things included a stay in the mental hospital, my friend's suicide, my father-in-law's cancer, and our debit card number getting stolen.

    Thanks for your blog, perfect number. I've read quite a bit of it.